Throughout the month of February, we will feature blogs that recognize Black History Month.
Looking at Black history through the lens of adult literacy, the contributions of Septima Clark come into focus.
Clark spent 40 years in South Carolina as an educator and advocate for social justice, all while continuing her own education until she earned a master’s degree in 1946. She was known as the “mother” of the grassroots education movement and fought for equal pay among Black and white teachers. In 1956 she refused to leave the NAACP and, as a result, lost her teaching contract.
This is when her legacy in adult education begins. In 1957, Clark, with the help of Esau Jenkins and Bernice Robinson, established the first Citizenship School at the Highlander Folk School, a center dedicated to social justice in Tennessee. The purpose of the program: teach Black adults reading and writing so they could pass literacy tests to vote.
In the south, literacy tests were almost always required of Black people to vote, even those who were college educated. A white judge determined whether someone was literate enough to vote. The judge would fail Black people as a way to deny them the right to vote. White people, including those who could not read, almost always passed.
Clark deeply believed literacy and political empowerment are inherently intertwined with one another.
But we know adults don’t simply learn to read and write, and then stop. Clark knew this too. With literacy, adults could understand their rights and responsibilities as citizens. The program taught them how to effectively navigate issues related to housing, health care, and community participation. They learned how to complete a money order and file income taxes.
The program grew, and Clark trained community leaders throughout the south to start their own Citizenship Schools to teach members of their own communities to read and write. In 1961, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference took over the direction of the program, and it became known as the Citizenship Education Program.
By 1970 when the program came to an end, 897 Citizenship Schools had been opened throughout the south, and, with literacy, voter registration among Black citizens soared.
If you’re interested in learning more about Septima Clark, check out one of our recommended articles: